Department history

For a complete history of how has the McGill Chemistry Department changed over the last 50 years, from the 2020 perspective, please read here: PDF icon chemdept_history.pdf

The University of McGill College received its Royal Charter in 1821 thanks to the bequest of a Scots fur trader, James McGill, who wanted Lower Canada to have in Montreal an English college on a liberal scale. Today, McGill is recognized as one of the most prestigious institutions of higher learning in Canada.

McGill College opened its doors in 1843 as a small college primarily focused on the professional fields of medicine, law, and engineering. Chemistry was part of the medical school under the guise of Pharmaceutical Chemistry. Only in 1908 did Chemistry gain departmental status, yet in 1909 the Department of Chemistry produced its first PhD Chemist: Dr. Annie L. MacLeod. The dynamic drive hidden in these meagre beginnings led to the 1000th PhD by 1984. McGill Chemistry has continued to nurture and encourage the brightest minds in science.

Frederick Soddy The tradition of scholarship in Chemistry depends upon the research and teaching of its faculty. The beginning of the twentieth century at McGill featured the collaborative work of Ernest Rutherford and Fredrick Soddy in radioactivity. Although a member of the Physics Department, Rutherford received the 1908 Nobel prize in Chemistry for the concept of the atom and characterization of radioactivity. Soddy received the Nobel Prize in 1921, for the concept of isotopes which was born in McGill Chemistry in 1902. The tradition of radiochemistry remained in the department in the work of Leo Yaffe, who developed daughter elements and nuclear reaction pathways.

Ernest Rutherford The Department affiliation with the pulp and paper industry began in the early 1900's with the collaborative work of R.F. Ruttan and the Forest Product Laboratory, a Canadian Government Laboratory in Montreal. The pioneering research of Harold Hibbert in the field of lignin chemistry and paper liquids led to the elucidation of the chemical structure of lignin and its role in tree growth. He extracted many final by-products, such as vanillin, from waste pulp. The Pulp and Paper Research Institute, an industry-university collaboration, was established in 1927. Problems of direct interest to the pulp and paper industry were approached so as to open new fields of research. Consequently, in the field of haemo-rheology (the study of the flow of blood in veins and arteries) developed from the work of Stanley Mason on the flow properties of suspensions.

Otto Maass established the first major graduate school in any discipline in Canada. He won international renown for his work on critical state phenomena, preparation of pure hydrogen peroxide, specific heat measurements and sound propagation. G. Stafford Whitby laid the basis of Canada's synthetic rubber production in the 1920's. In 1930, Bill Chalmers' graduate work synthesized methacrylate polymers and was subsequently used as "plexiglas". Another pioneer was Carl Winkler who studied natural and synthetic rubber crystallization and with the work of R.V.V. Nicholls, founded the modern polymer chemistry research of the department.

The Chemistry Department stresses the fundamentals of both pure and applied chemistry. In response to a request by the banking industry in 1857, T. Sterry Hunt developed the chromic dyes used for the United States dollar. In 1981 Kelvin K. Ogilvie co-developed the automated gene synthesizer that has greatly advanced the biotechnology industry. The industrial links of Chemistry were further strengthened in 1987 when Allan Hay from General Electric and Robert Marchessault from Xerox joined the Department, as NSERC Industrial Research Professors.

In recognition of their contributions to science, many international awards have been bestowed on members of the faculty or graduates. These awards have ranged from the Nobel Prize to the Order of Canada. Members of the staff have been awarded nearly every medal of the Chemical Institute of Canada and many of the highest awards of the American Chemical Society.

Department Timeline

  •     1821 The Royal Charter was granted to the University as McGill College.
  •     1843 University of McGill College officially opened for enrollment, there were three chemists!
  •     1867 The Dominion of Canada was formed.
  •     1887 A new chemistry laboratory was built, distinct from the Medical Faculty.
  •     1903 Sir William Macdonald financed the construction of a Chemistry and Mining Building.
  •     1906 Graduate Studies Committee was established.
  •     1908 Ernest Rutherford received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for research conducted at McGill.
  •     1908 Chemistry became a separate University Department.
  •     1909 The first PhD in Chemistry was awarded to Annie Louise MacLeod.
  •     1921 Fredrick Soddy was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the concept of isotopes.
  •     1930 "Plexiglas" polymers developed by William Chalmers, a Ph.D. student.
  •     1940 The synthesis of the super-explosive RDX.
  •     1965 McGill Chemistry moved to the Otto Maass Chemistry Building.
  •     1981 Kelvin K. Ogilvie co-developed the first "gene machine".
  •     1984 McGill Chemistry awarded its 1,000th PhD.
  •     1988 Bernard Belleau developed 3TC, a nucleoside analogue and anti-AIDS drug.
  •     1995 Fenster, Harpp, and Schwarcz develop the "Chemistry Show" which attracted 350,000 visitors.
  •     2011 The Office of Science and Society is endowed $5.5 M
  •     2012 Completion of a major department wide renovation effort.
  •     2014 McGill first MOOC: "Food for Thought"
  •     2014 CERC in Green Chemistry and Green Chemicals awarded to Robin Rogers
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